This is Canada’s instant language
With these strange angles, hooks and loops, an earnest young missionary named
gave Canada’s Indians and Eskimos the white man’s finest legacy, a written language that still flourishes. A nation was in his debt — but his reward was disgrace and obscurity
MILDRED J. YOUNG
ONE AUTUMN MORNING in 1841 a slight, earnest man set up a blackboard on the banks of the Jack River, three hundred miles north of Winnipeg, and began to mark it with strange designs. Though the Indians gathered around were only mildly curious, they were about to receive one of the white man’s finest legacies — the gift of a written language.
As they watched, their interest turned to wonder, and their wonder to delight. By the end of the first day, Indians who had never seen a book in their lives were reading fluently. And their descendants have been reading the syllabics of James Evans ever since.
Though few white men have ever heard of this method of writing, the late Lome Pierce, Canadian author and editor, called it one of the most important achievements by any scholar of any time. Within ten years of its invention it had placed Bibles, catechisms, hymn books and sacred texts in the hands of every tribe of Indians on the western plains. Dr. John Maclean, later chief archivist of the Methodist Church of Canada, claimed that this literature had a strong influence in keeping these tribes neutral during the Riel Rebellion when the west was on the verge of a bloody Indian war. Many Indian and Eskimo children still learn to read the syllabics from their parents before they are five. Books and government bulletins have been produced in the symbols, and a syllabic Eskimo magazine, called Inuktitut is delivered twice yearly by boat and plane to the remote outposts of Canada’s Eastern Arctic.
But James Evans was never honored for his achievement. Records that should tell his story have mysteriously disappeared. Canadian history books scarcely mention his name.
There is little doubt that he was a brilliant man. He was also stubborn and uncompromising. The Hudson’s Bay Company governor of the time, Sir George Simpson, declared that Evans “acted with an habitual assumption of superiority'’ and with an obstinacy that Simpson rarely met. Even a country as wide as Canada could not contain both men, and Evans was eventually shipped back to England in despair and disgrace. Existing records hint strongly of blackmail.
It was a sad end to the hopes of the young missionary sent by the Methodist Church in 1823 to minister to the Ojibways of Rice Lake, halfway between Lake Ontario and the present City of Peterborough. Though only twenty-two, he had already served as
With lead from tea chests, Evans made type (top left) and printed books in syllabics, such as the hymnals shown here, for the Indians.
a sailor on the Baltic Sea, and as a grocery clerk in his native England. Two years after his family emigrated to Lower Canada, James followed them, married seventeen-year-old Mary B. Smith, and dedicated his life to God.
Besides converting the natives of Rice Lake, his job was to translate the Bible and other church literature into the native tongue. But, like many before him, he found the work dishearteningly slow.
Before the white man came to Canada, the Indians had no written language beyond the symbols on their totem poles and the sign-and-picture drawings that decorated their wigwams. Missionaries, therefore, had to learn the native dialect orally, then use the Roman alphabet to write it down. But many Indian sounds had no English equivalent, and the translators could only try to bend the letters to fit.
At Rice Lake, Evans took a radically new approach to the problem. Using a knowledge of shorthand, he devised a new alphabet called syllabics, because each symbol stood for a syllable rather than a single letter. Nine symbols in four different positions encompassed the entire language, and with slight revision could be adapted to every Indian and Eskimo dialect on the continent.
Hopefully, Evans submitted his proposal to the mission board in Toronto, but it was rejected at once: busy board members had no time to puzzle over these strange hieroglyphics from Rice Lake.
Evans bowed to their judgment and returned to his work.
He did so well that the board asked him to form a committee to standardize translations of Ojibway into English: the wild variety of translations coming into the mission board was getting out of hand. To the committee, Evans appointed his brother Ephraim.
By 1837 the mission board had raised enough money to send Evans to New York with an Ojibway vocabulary he had written called Speller and Interpreter and some other translations, to have these works published.
He was away four months. The cost of the printing took nearly all the money he had, and he wrote to his wife: “I am as poor as a church mouse ... I was seven to eight weeks with not twenty-five cents to spend.” On his way home he could not afford a berth on the boat, but signed up as a deck passenger, sleeping “on the softest plank I could find.”
At this time the prairie provinces were still the Northwest Territories, under the jurisdiction of the Hudson’s Bay Company. By its charter, the company maintained law and order throughout the area, but its main business was to make money, / continued on page 34
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and any change in the fur trade was its immediate concern.
And the fur trade was changing. In too many places the Indians were drifting southward in search of the missionaries who were bringing strange stories about the white man’s God and His wonderful Book. To stem the migration, the Hudson’s Bay Company offered a proposal to the English Wesleyan Church. If it would establish missions from Hudson Bay to the Rockies, the company would provide canoes, provisions, interpreters and houses without cost. They would also give the missionaries the same rank as commissioned officers, and pay them the same allowance.
Three missionaries were recruited from England, plus James Evans from Upper Canada. With his wife and small daughter, he traveled westward.
Norway House was the old Jack River outpost of the Selkirk settlers. Brigades of boats, carrying both Indians and Métis, passed that way from posts on Lake Athabasca and the Mackenzie River. From this centre, Evans’ parish extended from Moose Factory on James Bay. to the Rocky Mountains. During his six-year tenure he visited nearly all of it by dog team and canoe. Much of the traveling he did in another of his inventions, a tin canoe which he repaired from time to time with a soldering iron. Seeing its sides flashing in the sun. the Indians named it “The Island of Light.”
The native language at Norway House was Cree, and Evans soon mastered it. But Cree fitted the Roman alphabet no better than Ojihway had. Once more Evans examined his syllabic alphabet. It needed some revision, hut essentially the same one he had offered to the mission board
in Toronto several years before would serve his purpose.
First, he tried it on the children at the mission school. Results were astounding. After struggling with the Roman alphabet for months without success, children found themselves completely literate in the new medium in a few days. Adult Indians, after their day’s work was done, gathered around Evans’ blackboard on the river bank for as long as the light lasted. They mouthed the sounds as he said them, then copied them on scraps of birchbark with the points of charred sticks. From one to another they passed their work, exclaiming in delight. The birchbark was talking to them in terms that they understood. It was a miracle.
Words poured from tea chests
The new skill spread through the settlement with astonishing rapidity. There was no shortage of teachers, for everyone who learned what the birchbark said was anxious to show off how much he knew.
Soon the demand for reading material exhausted the supply. The Indians at the mission tried to copy the scriptures and hymns with crude wooden pens, but it was impossibly slow. They needed type and a printing press.
To make type, Evans carved the characters in hardwood, then made molds in soft clay. Into the molds he poured lead melted from the lining of the Hudson’s Bay Company tea chests, plus a few spent bullets. Chimney soot mixed with sturgeon oil was used for ink, and large sheets of birchbark for paper.
There was no printing press in the Northwest Territories because the company had forbidden one. However, William Ross, the Hudson’s Bay factor, allowed him to use a fur press, and with this he printed five thousand
birchbark pages in Cree syllabics.
His Indian helpers stitched them into little books of sixteen pages each, and bound them with soft deerskin covers. Each volume contained the alphabet, some Bible passages, and a few hymns. As fast as they were distributed to the pupils they were passed on to others.
From Norway House the syllabics spread in all directions. Brigades of boats that passed that way carried the news that at Norway House was a man who could make birchbark talk, and the Indian could learn what it said in a few hours.
By the end of the first winter, Indians who could read and write the syllabics were coming into Norway House from as far east as Fort Churchill, and as far west as the Rocky Mountains. And they had never seen a white teacher.
The Rev. John Maclean told how Stoney Indians visited his mission at Macleod. From under their blankets they would draw out copies of the Bible in syllabics, well thumbed with constant use. Sometimes they divided their Bibles into sections and shared them with new tribes along the way.
Letter writing became popular. Indians created post offices by blazing trees and writing the syllabics on the white surfaces. Sometimes they left birchbark messages under piles of stones, each with a peeled rod set up to attract attention.
The American consul in Winnipeg wrote to the Manitoba Free Press: “All accounts represent the diffusion of the syllabic characters among the Indian camps of the vast interior occupied by the Cree tribes as extraordinary. Parties descending rivers would exchange messages by inscriptions on banks or bars of the stream and its acquisition was only the labor of a few hours.”
Evans’ brother, Ephraim, lately returned to England, persuaded the
Hudson's Bay Company to allow a printing press in the territory, under the promise that it would be used for missionary purposes only. He may have beon spurred on by a letter from James dated August 1, 1842: “I am sending you a few of my homemade type and a specimen of printing . . .
I dare say my book is without ‘register’ and the form is none of the best.
I had a very bad ‘devil’ and much of my type ought to ‘go to hell.’ ”
The English Wesleyan Missionary Society asked for a set of the syllabic characters, sent them to a foundry and had a large quantity of type made. These, along with rollers, ink, paper, and five hundred pounds for a building, accompanied the hand press from London. It was the first printing press in the northwest.
Before long Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries were also translating in the new script—among them the famous Father Albert Lacombe, one of the first Roman Catholic priests sent into the Northwest Territories. In 1861 the British And Foreign Bible Society in London issued the entire Bible in syllables. It is still iin use today.
But trouble was gathering for James Evans.
In accordance with his strict Methodist principles, Evans urged his Indians to observe the Sabbath, even during the mad dash to the coast with the year’s catch of furs. This, the Hudson’s Bay Company feared, could be disastrous. If the furs were caught along the way by freeze-up. shipment would be delayed for another year, with possible heavy losses.
Missionary journals tell how Evans deliberately raced the company brigades, his Indians observing a day of rest each week, while the Bay men paddled steadily onward. Evans’ crew always reached its destination first.
Evans tried to promote local manufacturing among the Indians. This looked like another attempt to interfere with the fur trade. Indians who were busy manufacturing would not be trapping furs. What’s more, many officials honestly felt that the Indians were better off in the bush away from the white man’s influence, which was not always beneficial.
Whatever the facts, in 1845 James Evans was charged with serious acts of immorality. He was arrested and tried in a Hudson’s Bay court and found guilty. Several Indian women testified against him.
No immediate action was taken, although Evans found it increasingly difficult to get supplies from the Hudson’s Bay stores and had to obtain his needs through his loyal Indian friends. Eventually he knew he would have to answer the charges against him before his superiors in England, but mails were slow, arriving only twice a year. In the meantime he went about his work as before.
Then misfortune struck again. While Evans was on a canoe trip, a rifle discharged in his hands, killing one of his Indian boatmen. Evans was in despair. Setting his affairs in order, he presented himself to the dead man’s tribe although he knew that their law required “blood for blood, and life for life.”
After considerable uncertainty,
Evans’ life was spared and he was adopted into the tribe in the dead man’s place. For the rest of his life he contributed toward the support of the man’s parents from his own pitifully small salary.
When the summons arrived from England, Evans and his wife made the long journey by river and ocean. In England he was tried again, and this time completely cleared of the charges. Years later, at least one of the Indian women who had testified
against him. confessed on her death bed that she had lied.
Though Evans was treated kindly in England, his one wish was to return to his work in Canada. To raise money for the purpose he traveled about the countryside giving lectures about life in the great Northwest Territories.
On November 23, 1846, Evans
spoke at Keilby in Lincolnshire where he was given an enthusiastic welcome. That evening, after his
wife had retired for the night. Evans sat talking to his host beside a cheery fire. As he spoke he slid sideways in his chair, and when his host reached him he was dead. He was forty-five.
Evans was buried in the Old Waltham Street Chapel in Hull. England, and for the most part dismissed from the Canadian scene. In 1955 when the chapel was being demolished, his remains were accidentally discovered, cremated and returned to Norway House at the same time as the new
mission school was being opened there.
For more than a hundred years the syllabics of James Evans have served the native population of Canada. They have been read at morning prayers in the light of the rising sun, and studied around the camp fire at the end of many a trail. However, as government schools and popular publications reach into the wilderness, the syllabic alphabet will no doubt eventually disappear. McGill’s Dr. C. D. Ellis expects it to last another twenty years, although he would like to see Indian children formally taught in this medium at least through the first four grades.
At present a program is under way
to ease the Eskimos away from the syllabics and toward the Roman alphabet. This would not only provide a uniform written language across the Arctic, but would also make available a vast amount of Eskimo literature in Roman letters in Greenland.
Whatever their future, there is little doubt of the value of the syllabics to the native people of Canada. Lord Dufferin, governor general of Canada twenty-five years after Evans’ death, declared: “The fact is, that
this nation has given many a man a title, and a pension, and then a resting place and a monument in Westminster Abbey, who never did half so much for his fellow creatures.” ★